Imagine a progression of time visible in a single photographic artwork. Envisage an image depicting multiple points of view on one flat surface. Welcome to the photomontage.
What Is a Photomontage
A photomontage is a series of individual photographs, collectively of one subject, arranged together to create a single image. Sometimes a photomontage can move and include video.
We are used to seeing single photos. Most photographs are created in a fraction of a second and do not convey a duration of time. This short window in time is captured at one location.
A photomontage can contain any number of photos. There is no limit to the amount of time it takes to create this series of images. There is also no limit to the variety of locations the photographer can use to make the photos. To be practical in the execution of a photomontage, some limitation is advisable.
Photo montages are like cubism. There are no bounds of perspective or time. You can create a single artwork using multiple images of the same subject, (or more than one subject.) Doing this in a cohesive manner gives interesting results. Doing this without attention to some essential visual elements can result in an ocular nightmare.
What a Photomontage Is Not
Photomontage software and apps have become popular. It’s easy to use a photomontage maker to break up a single photograph and create an illusion that it is many. This is not a true photomontage.
The results of such manipulations can be graphically appealing. But a flat image created by breaking up a single photo has no real depth or artistic expression.
A collection of unrelated or semi-related photos arranged together can also be known as a photomontage. This article is not about those.
My Experience With Photomontage
Back in the early 1980s, I watched a short documentary of British artist David Hockney. The program followed him through the creation of what he called a ‘joiner’.
I was most interested in his expression concerning time and space. How photographs differ from paintings. Paintings take time to produce and there are fewer limitations than with photography. Creating a photomontage from a series of photos negates these limitations.
I started simply with small scale black and white compositions. Initially, I found it very difficult to make a photomontage I wanted to show other people. Over time this changed. I had montages published in newspapers during my time as a photo journalist. I have held solo exhibitions of my work. Now I am following my fascination to incorporate video and make my photo montages move.
Creative Photography – More Than Single Images
Whatever genre of creative photography you are interested in, you can make a photomontage of it.
All you need is an active imagination, plenty of time and disciplined focus. This is not something easy and is very different than making single photographs. It is more like painting, writing or sculpting because of the creative process and time involved.
What You’ll Need to Create Your Own Photomontage:
- Board, Glue, Roller, Black marker pen
Step by Step – How to Create Your First Photomontage
In these steps, I encourage you to create a simple photomontage. Once you are familiar with the processes and have a workflow you are comfortable with, I hope you will progress on to more imaginative works.
Choose Your Subject
You need to carefully consider your choice of objective for a photomontage. This could differ from your regular photography ideas. Your potential to express space and time must be considered.
For your first photomontage pick a static subject. Preferably one you can return to and photograph more than once if you need to.
Don’t choose something that moves as this will add complications. You are more likely to be successful as a first time photomontage maker if you start out simply.
Calculate how you want to creatively photograph your subject. Plan how many photos you want to make. You will need to think about how close you are to your subject and which lens you will use to obtain the number of photos you want.
Using a standard 50mm lens will make compiling your photos easier. A wide angle lens might create problematic distortion at the edges of the images.
Aim to create a montage that will have 20 to 30 photographs in the finished piece. Having too many or too few images can make it more difficult to compile.
For my photomontage of the bridge at dusk I wanted a minimal number of images. I used only seven photographs in this montage. It was very difficult to put them together and keep the integrity of the picture.
Photograph More Than You Need To
Make each photo count. Plot out a grid in your mind and follow through so you are making sure to record every part of your subject at least once. I typically start from a corner.
Overlap your photos. If you are photographing from left to right, look at something which appears near the right side of your composition. Take the photo and then move your camera to the right. Compose your next photo so the same thing is still in the composition, but towards the left of the frame.
It’s good to have the option of including photos which overlap and are not all in straight lines. This gives you more flexibility when you come to lay the photomontage out.
Don’t go crazy and take hundreds, but make sure you have every part of your subject covered. Aim to make individual creative photographs of each part of your subject composed differently.
Sometimes I will photograph an object or part of a scene multiple times. I will place it at the top and the bottom of the frame or at each corner. Doing this will give you more options as you are laying your photomontage out.
Look For Lines in Your Composition
Using vertical, horizontal, and/or diagonal lines will help. Look for lines, straight or curved, as you are making your photographs. Be mindful of how they could appear in your finished photo montage.
Making use of these lines will help hold your montage together and make it more attractive to look at. If there is no flow of lines through your finished piece it will look muddled and confusing.
Manage Your Images Well
I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to compile my montages on a computer before having the photos printed. You can use any imaging software that allows you to have separate images on multiple layers.
Load all the photos you made onto your computer. Do not delete any of them, even if there are technical flaws. You might use one of them to fill a gap.
I will look through my series of photos and pick out all of the strongest images. Photos that will stand alone as good pictures whether or not they are part of a photomontage.
Make a separate folder for these and place them in it. Next, choose the bulk of your photos you think will be best suited to compose your photomontage. Imagine where the edges will be and pick images to fill your composition space. Place these in another folder.
Place the remaining photos in a third folder.
Resize Your Photos
Resize your photos based on how large you want your finished photomontage to be. Keep your resolution at 300 dots per inch (dpi.) This will mean the size is the same when you get them printed.
Decide roughly how many photos will make up the width and how many the height. You can size your individual photos to fit into the dimensions you want. This can be altered later, but it’s good to work with a base size from the start.
I always compile my photo montages using .jpeg images with minimum compression. This will vary depending on the number of photos you are working with and the processing power of your computer.
Create Your Photoshop ‘Canvas’
Create a new ‘canvas’ of a suitable size. Make sure the dpi matches the dpi of your photos.
Don’t be too concerned about the correct canvas size. You can always alter it later to suit your needs if it’s too small or too large.
Import Your Photos
Export the photos from the first two folders and import them to Photoshop by going to File > Scripts> Load Files To Stack.
Using this option you can load all the images you need into one document as separate layers. If you are using this method, select all the layers and drag and drop them into the document where you create your empty canvas.
You need all your photos to be on their own layer in the document you have created. At this stage they may all appear to be stacked on top of each other, unlike this image below:
Arrange Your Photos
Start to drag and drop each photo roughly where you want it. If you have the ability to colour code each layer, it is a good idea to do so. I usually use three colours. One for the images on the left, one for the images that make up the middle and one for those on the right.
When I am working on large photo montages, I will make separate groups in the layers panel and add layers to them. This allows me to hide all the images in one group, which can make the workflow more efficient.
Move your photos around and position them so they resemble the whole subject you photographed. Some photos will still appear stacked on top of each other. This is okay.
Once you have all the photos roughly in position, the real creative photography fun begins. This is when you start to think freely. Don’t be inhibited. Move the photos around and experiment liberally.
As you work, parts of images you want to see might be hidden below another layer. You can move each photo higher up or lower down in the layers hierarchy to suit.
This can take a long time the first time you try it. Don’t expect to complete laying out a montage the first time you sit down to do it.
I try not to restrict my thinking or really have it conformed. I aim to create a finished photomontage people can look at without getting a headache.
If a series of photos is not composed well, the results will not be attractive. You must be careful to lay out your photos in a manner that is pleasing to look at. If you do not, the results can appear muddled, ambiguous and unattractive to viewers.
The way I achieve this is to compile my photos so there are strong lines clearly running through my montage. These lines will help hold the photos together and make them appear cohesive.
Hide Layers to Finish Your Photomontage
As your photomontage begins to take shape you can start to turn off the layers you are not using. Don’t delete them, just hide them.
Compiling a photomontage requires flexibility. Be open to your creative expression. As you move photos around, your montage will constantly change. Being able to hide or show individual images allows you to be more innovative with your layout.
If you are seeing any gaps in your montage check your images in the third folder you created but did not import any photos from. You may find a photo to fill your gap. If not, be creative and duplicate an image you have already used or just leave the gap blank if it looks good to you.
Give yourself plenty of time for compiling your photo montage, but make sure you finish it. This can truly be a never ending process if you let it be.
Of course, you can always revisit a montage later and compose it differently if you like.
In my experience a montage is rarely laid out the same way twice. How it looks on your computer monitor will be different than the way you are likely to lay the prints out and stick them down.
Printing Your Photos (a Fun Optional Step)
You do not have to print and paste up your montages. As digital artworks they are quite acceptable. Printing them, however, takes them to another dimension which I think makes them even more special.
The photos you have used and are visible in the finished layout now need to be printed. You can have them printed out as individual photographic prints quickly and easily.
Decide How To Adhere Your Prints
Sticking the prints down can be a difficult step. Using glue can be very messy and it is easy to damage overlapping prints.
For many years I have used a roll of double-sided adhesive paper. I apply this to each image before I start laying them out.
If you are using contact glue you will need to apply this as you are about to stick your prints down. I recommend you lay out your prints first before you start to stick any down. This will allow you to see an impression of how your photomontage will look.
You must be careful not to get excess glue on the board or your other prints.
Before I stick my prints down, I blacken the edges of the prints with a thick marker pen. Having the edges dark makes them less visible on the finished photomontage.
Lay Out Your Prints
When you have all your prints ready, begin to lay them out on your board. This is easiest if you have your computer next to you and use the digital version of your photomontage to guide you.
Turn all the layers off except the bottom one. The visible layer will be the first print you place on the board. Turn on the next layer and place the print on the board. Work from the bottom up and make sure each print you lay down is one that overlaps a print you already have on the board.
During this first laying out of the prints I do not stick any of them down.
The prints will move around. You will knock and nudge them as you are positioning other prints. The whole process is quite kinetic. You could use masking tape to hold each print in place, but I never do. I like the movement as it can sometimes open up different placements I had not thought of.
As you are laying out your prints, step back and have a look at your work from a distance. If you can get up above the table you are working on, this is even better.
Stick Your Photomontage Down
Once you are satisfied with your photomontage layout, it’s time to adhere them. I usually start from a corner with a print that is not overlapping any others.
As you stick your prints down you must make sure whatever is under each one is the board or another print already stuck down. Don’t glue a print that is supposed to have another behind it. This can potentially ruin the look of your photomontage.
Once You Have Finished
Share your photomontage with your friends. Get them to come and see it or take your photomontage to them. Showing the printed artwork is far different than showing the digital version. Often people do not realise individual prints make up my montages.
Experiment and explore time and space. Study some cubists. Find whole other dimensions in photography not possible with a single image.
Now you’ve tried photomontage, check out our articles on multiplicity photography, abstract photography tips or photo essays for more creative photography ideas!